Is the militarization of certain police forces related to the racial makeup of their community?Recent events like those in Ferguson, Mo., might point to a connection, but a UT professor’s study found it has more to do with a community’s integration rather than the demographics of the people who live there.
Dr. Olugbenga Ajilore, UT professor of economics, recently published “The Militarization of Local Law Enforcement: Is Race a Factor?” in the journal Applied Economics Letters.
His article is based around a federal program, administered by the Law Enforcement Support Office, that posts notice of surplus military equipment to a website where law enforcement offices can request items free of charge. These items range from flashlights and bulletproof vests to assault rifles and mine-resistant, ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicles.
It is the MRAP vehicles obtained by local law enforcement offices that Ajilore focused on in his study. The vehicles, which were created in 2000 to combat improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Iraq, have no place on American soil, according to Ajilore.
“I can’t think of a reason, in this country, to have one of those,” he said. “There are no IEDs on Monroe Street.”
When Ajilore studied the relationship between race and the acquisition of mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles, his findings were opposite those predicted by the hypothesis. In fact, according to his results, the presence of a larger African-American population actually lowers the likelihood of MRAP acquisition.
“When you see the visuals of Ferguson over the summer, you expect the data to replicate that,” Ajilore said. “But it didn’t; in fact, it showed the opposite.”
Data for the study came from a preliminary analysis by National Public Radio of 1,033 program acquisitions. The analysis showed that during the nine-month period that MRAPs were available, only 15 percent of U.S. counties acquired the vehicles, and only 1 percent of those 26 counties acquired more than one.
Ajilore then looked at several factors of those counties, including the percentage of African-American, Native-American, Asian and Hispanic individuals within those populations. He also used an equation that determines dissimilarity in a population, indicating the level of segregation within those communities.
One factor that was positively correlated to the procurement of MRAP vehicles is high residential segregation. This could mean that police militarization is related to segregation in a population, rather than the amount of people of a certain race within that population.
“What you realize then is that race is still an issue, but not in the way we traditionally think about it,” Ajilore said. “It’s not just the presence of minorities that causes these issues, it’s how they’re distributed geographically.”
If you compare Toledo and Cleveland, the two cities are demographically similar, according to Ajilore. The difference is that Toledo is more racially integrated than Cleveland, and Cleveland has MRAP vehicles while Toledo does not.
Ajilore said this type of segregation could be related to the acquisition of military grade equipment such as MRAPs because of the Minority Threat Hypothesis. Because many of these areas have been segregated for so long, when the minorities begin to move to areas populated by the majority, they are perceived as a threat to the status quo, and the majority responds by increasing the proportion of resources devoted to police services.
The use of this type of military grade equipment changes the way the public thinks of the police, according to Ajilore.
“If you look at the role of police and the role of military, they shouldn’t be the same,” he said. “The police are there to protect and serve the people within their community. The purpose of the military is to go out and end conflicts.”
To read Ajilore’s article, click here.